This is a story about my hair, and how it once came to be a problem.
In the beginning, my hair was not a problem. I had plaits as a child. My mother plaited my hair every morning. I stood between her legs, leaning on her slightly, feeling the gentle tugging of her fingers. Every night, she undid the plaits and brushed my hair. She bought ribbons from the haberdashery that she tied over the elastic bands in pretty bows, and also slides with butterflies and flowers on them that kept the wayward wisps off my face. Between the plaiting in the morning and the unplaiting at night, I didn't have to think about my hair at all.
But one day - I would have been about nine or ten - my mother decided to have my plaits cut off. Perhaps she had grown impatient with the time it took to do my hair. Perhaps she thought I had got too old for plaits. Perhaps she just wanted something to be different, and on a whim fixed on my hair. I can't remember it being discussed.
She took me to a hairdresser in town. There was a considerable sense of occasion about it. I sat up high on the booster cushion so I could see in the mirror. The hairdresser didn't undo my plaits, she cut them off with a huge pair of shears, and then dangled them in front of my face. She and my mother were laughing, my mother rather nervously I think. The hairdresser clearly saw it as a cause for celebration. She must have trimmed what was left of my hair, tidied the ragged ends up somehow, but I don't remember this.
My mother might have said, 'I don't know what her Daddy's going to say!' Something, at any rate, prompted the hairdresser to launch suddenly into a scene which has remained with me vividly to this day. Holding a plait in each hand, she bent close to my face, and whispered, 'When your Daddy comes home, HIDE!' Then, her voice rising dramatically, she went on, 'Hide behind the door! And when he comes in, JUMP OUT, and wave your plaits at him, and say HERE'S SOME FISH FOR YOUR SUPPER!' And she shook the plaits madly at me, her eyes wide and her coarse face shining just like a fish wife's.
What a strange thing it seems now! Did my plaits remind her of a couple of slaughtered plaice, perhaps? Maybe she had a long ago memory of her own, of a father taken off guard at the sight of his newly shorn and suddenly-much-older-looking daughter.
On the bus going home, I clutched the plaits tightly, and told my mother that I was going to do exactly as the hairdresser had suggested. Playing tricks on my father was not normally part of my repertoire; indeed, practical jokes and nasty surprises of any kind were firmly discouraged in my family. But the hairdresser had seemed to carry an authority and wordliness that somehow convinced me that my father would find the joke hilarious, and not, therefore, mind about my hair being cut off. I entirely missed my mother's non-committal, muted response. Perhaps she too was half convinced that the hairdresser's bull-by-the-horns approach was the way to go. At any rate, she didn't tell me not to do it.
I see myself now, hiding behind the lounge door, holding my plaits, holding my breath, my heart thudding in the sudden realisation that what I am about to do is outlandishly out of character, and not funny at all, but it is too late, my father is coming through the door, and I leap out, wildly waving the amputated plaits and shouting bizarrely, 'Here's some fish for your supper!' (We didn't even have 'supper' in our house, it wasn't even a thing.)
I see my father flinching away. He is surprised, but he's not laughing. He takes one of the plaits from me, perhaps he doesn't quite understand what he is seeing. He looks at it strangely, then hands it back to me.
'What have you done?' he says, but already I am too ashamed to respond.
We sit at the table to eat. My father eats in silence, and he doesn't look at me. My mother attempts conversation, then she gives up and we all eat in silence.
So begins five years of conflict and misery over my hair. Not with my father, who passes no further comment on it, ever. But it's as if he started a war and then left the battlefield. For, from this time forward, the sight of my hair seems to set my mother's teeth on edge. She never does my hair again, it's now my responsibility, and my struggle every day becomes, how can I find a way to do it that will take away her frown of disapproval and annoyance? How can I make her like my hair again?
When the day finally came, I had a slight sense of unreality. It all seemed to have taken such long time. A good two years since Finlay Lloyd first committed to publishing a collection of my stories. Months and months of final editing, moulding stories I had imagined finished into even better shape; changing endings; deciding on the order of the stories; deciding which stories to include. To say nothing of the time each individual story had taken, up to ten years in some cases, to get from the day I first put pen to paper with the germ of an idea, to the last few weeks of literally dotting the i's and crossing the t's.
The book was in my hands, a beautiful, dark, silky feel to it, a most evocative cover photograph, and my writing, presented like a gift, substantial and real. Ready for other readers.
The launch was at the National Library, on the Canberra Writers Festival weekend. I bought a new top and new shoes, and had my hair cut. I had asked a lot of friends, but my expectations were low. Perhaps three rows of chairs in the Ferguson Room would be full, I thought. Well, there'd be more champagne to go round.
But friends came from far and wide. People came from interstate, just for the launch. People who had warmly and encouragingly followed my writing ups and downs for years were there, happy to say they always knew that this day would come. People wandered in from the Festival, because they thought my book looked interesting. All my kids, and all their kids, were there. The grandchildren sat cross legged on the floor at the front, smiling up admiringly at their Grandma. It was standing room only.
Julian Davies from Finlay Lloyd warmly introduced the book, and its, by now euphoric, author. John Clanchy did his usual entertaining and insightful commentary on the stories and the writing.
Then I got up to say my heartfelt thank you's, to make a few comments of the particularities of writing short stories, and to read.
'Oh, it's a story!' my youngest grandchild exclaimed, as I started. I read a couple of passages, from Us and Them, and The Man on the Path, and this, for me, was pretty much the best part of all. I've always loved reading aloud, and there are so few opportunities to practice this delightful skill. The pleasure was doubled by it being my own work that I was reading.
Afterwards, I sat and signed books, chatting with friends and well wishers who had ventured their $22 on their faith in my stories. Finally the champagne, the merriment, the buzz of conversation as friends connected with each other and like minds found each other. Old friends not seen for ages were embraced and welcomed, and children ran about with their cousins. Photographs were taken. A bread stick sword fight between two younger cousins was broken up. Everyone was proud and happy, and everyone - rightly - took a little credit.
I wore the yellow party dress, because my sister Jennifer wasn't going to this party.
The dress had been given to Jennifer by our step-grandmother, when she had once taken her to high tea at the Grand Hotel. It was much more beautiful than my own party dress, (which was quite plain, blue satin, with hardly any gathers.) The yellow party dress had layers of fine tulle over the skirt, and very full gathers. It was covered in sequins, with a lovely yellow sash that tied in a bow at the back. It was like the dress of a princess in my Grimm's Fairy Story book.
My mother bought me new ribbons - yellow, with tiny flowers all over them.
The party was in a large bungalow in Trentham. My mother always used to say she wished she lived in a bungalow instead of a semi detached. We didn't know anybody in Trentham, people with money lived there; but we often used to walk to Trentham Gardens for picnics. My mother would look at the lovely houses on the way, with their mock Tudor gables and big glassed in porches. Their gardens trailed prettily over little stone walls next to the pavement, and my mother would nip little pieces off as we walked past. 'It needed pruning anyway,' she'd say, tucking the little green piece into her basket.
On this occasion, we didn't walk; my mother drove me to the party in the car, and left me on the doorstep.
I didn't know another child there. I didn't even know who the party girl was. Perhaps her mother was some distant acquaintance of my mother, and was just trying to get the numbers up.
There were a lot of boys running everywhere. colliding with things, just like in the playground at school. The girls stood fluffing up the skirts of their party dresses - most of them had layers of tulle like mine.
We played Musical Chairs. A tall lady with bright red lipstick arranged the dining room chairs in a row, then sat down to play the piano. The boys stayed really close to the chairs, which wasn't fair, but the grown ups didn't stop them. The girls squealed when the music stopped. I was the first to be out, and I watched the rest of the game wishing I was still in it.
Then we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey. When it was my turn, it seemed as if the world dissolved and all the noise retreated behind the dark, soft scarf. 'Can you still see?' said the lady with the lipstick suspiciously, tugging the scarf tighter. I didn't want to see. I felt invisible, stepping forwards blindly, guided by strange hands. I was very sure I knew exactly where to pin the tail, but then I heard the laughter, and the hands pulled off the scarf, and I saw that I had pinned it ludicrously far away, on the donkey's neck. I stood about again then - there was a lot of standing about, watching. It was all part of having a lovely time.
When it was finally time to eat, we were all called together and trooped into the dining room. We sat at a very large, long table, that was spread with an embroidered cloth, and laid with silver dishes and paper doilies and thick white serviettes. There were tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and little sausages rolls, and jam tarts, and a Victoria sponge. The grown ups passed the food around, and everyone was suddenly quiet and remembered their manners. If you didn't like something, you left it on the side of your plate tidily and didn't complain.
The birthday cake was a Battenberg cake, that I had only ever had before at the Maypole Café on special occasions. When we sang Happy Birthday, I wished that it was my birthday, my cake, and my party. I wished it was my house. My own life seemed suddenly dull. What single thing did I have that could compare to this?
There was one final game before the party finished - Pass the Parcel. We sat cross legged in a circle, and the lipsticked lady sat at the piano again. But how could you have a turn at unwrapping the parcel if the boy sitting next to you wouldn't let it go? And when you finally had it in your hands, the piano continued relentlessly. I watched the paper being torn off again and again, and still it came round and I still had a chance. Then, to my astonishment, it was in my lap, where the boy next to me had furiously hurled it, and the music had stopped. I pulled off the paper, and there was no more paper left. There in my hands was a large box of oranges and lemons - the sugar coated jellies, I should add, but they did not need explanation then. They were really grown up sweets. They had a rind, in a slightly firmer jelly and a slightly darker colour, and they tasted - well, how jellies used to taste, utterly delicious, soft, melt in the mouth, sweet and citrusy. and NOT chewy. This box had a cellophane cover. I could see the sweets arranged in overlapping layers, circles of lemon and orange, dozens and dozens of them.
The children's coats were being fetched, the parents were arriving. I stood holding my box of oranges and lemons, my dress, the house, and everything else forgotten, disbelieving, lost in the wonder of it. I'd never had such luck before. I'd never had a box of sweets like this before.
I remember nothing of leaving the party. But there is a clear flash of memory, of sitting in the back of the car, the box of oranges and lemons on my knee. We are driving home, and I am anxious that this too-good-to-be-true moment will end, that my mother will say, 'Put those away until after dinner,' or 'you'll have to share with Jennifer,' or 'give them to me, they're not suitable for a child.' But she doesn't say any of these things, and I carefully open the box and wonder whether to have an orange or a lemon first. I choose an orange, and it's just as delicious as I knew it would be, and then I choose a lemon.
When we get home, my mother does not take the box off me. She smiles at me, and says, 'Aren't you a lucky girl?' Perhaps she is distracted, perhaps she doesn't realise that there are quite so many sweets in the box. I take it up to my bedroom, and put it in my drawer, and over the next few days, I eat every single one.
We never went to the bungalow in Trentham again, and if I ever saw the little girl whose party it was again, it made no impression at all.
'Ordinary People' in Nazi Germany - The Wish Child, Catherine Chidgey, and The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.
Both these novels explore the lives of 'ordinary ' German families living through the years of WW11.
'The Wish Child', by Catherine Chidgey, published in New Zealand in 2016, has recently won the New Zealand Book Award. I could not help wondering if it was possible there could be another novel that could still find something different to say about Nazi Germany, but Catherine Chidgey achieves this.
We are plunged into a re-telling of the still-too-close, strange but familiar horrors of this time, but the horrors are felt rather than seen. This is a mesmerising, soul shaking book. The prose at times feels like a religious chant, repetitive, sonorous, hypnotic. It carries the reader forward on wave after wave, leaving you beached, breathless, uncertain whether the meaning is quite what it seems to be, but yes, you know it is, it really is. This really did happen.
The story explores the experience of two German families through the war, one living in Berlin, and one on a farm outside Leipzig. The point of view is embedded in the lives of these ordinary people. They are the kind of people of whom we now say smugly, 'How could they have let it happen? How could they not have known?' Both families believe that Germany will win the war, and that the Fruher is protecting them. They long for their past wealth and status to be restored to them, and blame 'the English' and 'foreigners' for Germany's economic woes. They believe in Germany's superiority and specialness. They want Germany to be great again.
Very little of this is explicit, however. We are present with them in their small day to day doings, living their ordinary lives as well as they know how. There is nothing extraordinary, either heroic or evil, about any of it - unless you freeze frame for a moment, and look at what you know to be the context of these peoples' lives, and ask, But what are they actually doing? What does this actually mean? There is a surreal quality to these peoples' lives that is reflected powerfully in the prose. It is as if a template for living 'correctly' has been imposed on them all, and any sense of personal morality excised. Sometimes the book almost felt like science fiction, as if this was some kind of made up world, a dystopia, peopled with beings who looked and behaved to all intents and purposes like human beings, but were missing some vital humanising component.
The story is narrated by the Wish Child - a disembodied entity, who is based on Child K, the first child in Nazi Germany to be officially euthanased. His parents petitioned Hitler to allow them to euthanase their son, who had been born with multiple disabilities. Hitler sent his own doctor to see the child, (who went on to an astonishing career, being responsible for the oversight and actual murder of thousands of people he judged to be less than perfectly Aryan, and was subsequently hanged at Nuremburg.) The Wish Child is an all seeing narrator, but he largely leaves us to form our own judgements and draw our own conclusions. He has a peculiar combination of attributes - the innocence of childhood, the capacity to focus on what he sees rather than what he knows, and a natural affinity for the poetic idiom. This is, in part, what gives the prose its surreal quality, powerfully reflecting the surreal-ness of these peoples' lives.
Time and again I was moved to wonder and tears as I reached the end of a scene of domestic or working life, and the full import, the subtext, the reality of what was really happening, would slowly emerge from the pages as if materialising from a fog. In one scene, Emilie, the mother of Seiglinde, is jealous of her sister-in-law's beautiful samovar. She hears that there is one in an auction to be held in another part of the city, and she and Seiglinde travel there by train. They find the place, it is a private house, everything is to be sold. There is an atmosphere of excitement, the samovar is antique, and much more beautiful than her sister-in-law's. When the bidding starts, Emilie finds herself bidding for lots of things, and she gets the samovar. It is a happy and successful day. Slowly, we begin to think about what Seiglinde's mother does not think - that this house belonged to a Jewish family, these possessions have been stolen from them, the family has been split up and sent away, almost certainly to a concentration camp, and if they have not already been murdered, they soon will be. None of this is explicit, it arises only in the reader's mind, like a phantom, taking slow, grim and unmistakeable shape.
I followed my reading of The Wish Child with Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Somewhat dog-eared, this book has been lying about for a while waiting for my attention. I was interested, emerging from the spell cast by The Wish Child, to see if this novel too could give any fresh insights into the Nazi years.
The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl, Leisel, who is effectively orphaned at the beginning of the war, and sent to live with foster parents in Molking, outside Munich. Through the trauma and deprivations of the war years, she holds on to a sense of identity and self esteem by stealing books, (an act of bravery and rebellion in the savagely book censoring Nazi regime.) and by teaching herself to read. She forms close attachments to a number of people in her life - school friend and fellow thief, Rudy Steiner, the Mayor's wife, the young Jewish man, Max, who her foster parents hide in their basement, and most particularly to her foster father. Almost all are subsequently killed. (I don't know why Zusak leaves it obscure at the end whether the man Leisel marries is actually Max - he treats nothing else in the book this way.)
The narrator of this story is also a disembodied, all-seeing entity - in this case, Death. But unlike in The Wish Child, where the narrator remains an ethereal and ultimately unknowable presence, the character of Death in The Book Thief is developed in a detailed and quite specific way. He has human traits - he gets tired, he gets disappointed, he is curious. Unfortunately, this leads to mounting problems with credibility. Death gathers up souls, for example, gently and carefully, and with great attention to the detail of the death scenes, which often distract him from his purpose. All this in real time. Increasingly, as the war progresses, I was starting to have intrusive thoughts, such as, how has he got time for this? There are probably several hundred thousand people dying today, and he's got no help! By the end, when Zusak writes of Death, 'When I travelled to Sydney and took Leisel away," I laughed out loud, the image of this Death had become a bit absurd.
Despite Death's extremely full on work load during the war years, he has time to observe the detailed day to day developments in Leisel's life. He knows her thoughts, listens to her conversations, muses on her conflicts and motivations. None of this has anything to do with her dying, which she doesn't do until she's an old lady. Why is he hanging about her like this? I kept asking myself. I forgot for long episodes that it was Death who was doing the narrating, and when I was reminded again, it was an uncomfortable and irritating intrusion. Death remains an artificial construct in this story, too developed as a real character to be convincing as Death, and yet not developed enough for us to believe in him or care.
In addition to all this, (oh dear, am I sounding curmudgeonly?), Death strikes a tone which is oddly jocular, by turns sarcastic, sardonic, whimsical, and tongue in cheek. I expect if you are inventing a personality for Death, you can make it what you like, Giving him a somewhat off-the-wall sense of humour has a freshness about it that might have worked better for me had the subject matter not been mass murder, enforced labour, war, terror, starvation, and genocide. Sometimes the tone almost makes it sound as if we are reading a children's book, for example, when Leisel's foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement, Death comments in one of his frequent subtitles, 'The Situation of Hans and Rosa Huberman - Very sticky indeed. In fact, frightfully sticky."
The scenes of bombed buildings, the frightening dashes to air raid shelters in the night, the suspicions of neighbours, the isolation and anxiety of people who were not following Nazi protocols to the letter, the rationing, the gradual falling apart of institutions and decimation of families - all are the standard fare of war stories. Leisel is a brave, plucky, resilient, strong, loyal little girl, and the crushing loss she has to face at the end when Himmel Street is reduced to rubble in a bombing raid, should have moved me.
I have read many stories of such people, their heroism, their rebellions, their resistance to the war and to Hitler's Germany. I am more interested these days to read about the sort of people Catherine Chidgey writes about in The Wish Child . People who didn't hide Jews in their basements, even though they might have been friends or neighbours; people who discovered that they'd really never liked or trusted Jews anyway, and now their feelings were being vindicated; people who took advantage of foreign labour, exploiting desperate people because no one stopped them, and after all they were only trying to put food on their own table, and the foreigners should count themselves lucky to have work at all; people who bought Jewish families' possessions, and like everyone who buys something off the back of a truck at a price that's too good to be true, put their own financial advantage over what they knew was wrong.
We are living now at a time when nationalism is on the rise in many countries. It starts as a bit of harmless flag waving, and a warm sentimental glow on national days of celebration. It is easily exploited by politicians, and quickly grows into something ugly - a collective sense of entitlement, that we are better than others, that our country is better than other countries, or deserves to be, or would be if it wasn't for outsiders/foreigners/immigrants. The us and them mentality is easily triggered; it lies sleeping in all of us, part of our dark side, of a primitive instinct for self preservation which places the self first. It has long been irrational. Taking care of others is demonstrably and almost universally the best way in the end of taking care of ourselves.
We need writers like Catherine Chidgey who are willing to explore the fault lines in these human tendencies, to expose the dark side that can be found in the thoughts and feelings of 'ordinary' people living average lives, you and me, to show us how it can happen that the private grievances and discontents of such people can morph into a collective nightmare of mass murder and persecution, a cataclysm engulfing millions, such as happened in the Nazi years.
Rehab suits me. My spirits are unaccountably calm and cheerful. I have a smile for everyone. I am grateful for everything.
It began, of course, with the discovery, on waking dreamily from the anaesthetic, that I am still alive. The world continues, and I am part of it still. Nurses clattering about their business, machines pinging and beeping, voices and footsteps.
The old pain has gone. There is a new pain, more an aching discomfort, a stiffness, that I somehow know is temporary. It's the feel of the wound in my hip. I can't walk without crutches, two at first, now one, but the limp has gone.
I need a lot of help with things at first, but quickly regain control with essentials. After three showers, I can shower myself. I can dress myself with the help of a long pick up tool. I can get in and out of bed, and go for walks up and down the corridors with my one crutch.
I have a room to myself at the end of a long corridor. It quickly becomes my world. Intrusions are mostly perfunctory and rare - tablets, fresh towel delivery, floor cleaner, nurse to do observations. Someone tried to get me to go down to the communal dining room for my meals, but I resisted and they didn't try again. I eat alone, watch the television sometimes, do my exercises, receive my visitors, and read. In less than a week, I have read three novels, (John Boyne, The Heart's Invisible Furies, Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have Family? and Noah Hawley, After the Fall.) I had a slight anxiety that I would run out of reading material, and organised visitors to bring me more books, and spent my 'day leave' going to the Portrait Gallery, not to look at the portraits, but to browse the lovely bookshop and buy two more books, (and scoff one of the wonderful Eccles cakes in the café.)
On my phone I follow the political shenanigans in the US and the UK, which absorb me like a long running soap opera. In my little rehab world, it all seems remote, and I am less dismayed. Political fortunes rise and fall, one drama gives way to another, people everywhere beaver away finding solutions to problems, continually carried forward by tides of optimism and hope, only to be left beached and despairing, and then picked up again by the bubbling tide for more.
The quiet winter sky outside my window lightens, darkens again. Patients in other rooms go home; new ones arrive, struggling with their walkers, telling their anxious stories. I am calm and at peace. Doing nothing is a prescription rather than a choice, and in this small space, I happily surrender control.
'Look at that!' the nice orthopaedic surgeon said, turning the screen towards me. 'That's as bad a hip joint as any I've seen.'
I peered at the grainy grey shapes of the X Ray. There was, to be sure, no gap at all between the ball joint and the hip socket, unlike in the other hip, where you could see a paler space all around it.
'Bone rubbing on bone,' he said, utterly confident, and I was 100% ready to believe him, after all these months of going down medical dead ends. Besides, he had already won me over by telling me cheerfully in our preliminary chat that he did not intend to be an orthopaedic surgeon all his life, but planned to apply to NIDA to train to become an actor. Now, three weeks later, with all manner of doubtful. doom-filled thoughts seeping in, this doesn't seem ;like quite the refreshing little jewel that it did then.
Hip replacement surgery, of course, was the solution, the one that has been loitering in the wings for ages. But it's my leg! I kept saying, it's my leg that hurts! But it's your hip that's causing the pain, someone needed to say.
'How soon do you want it done?' said the surgeon, as if no sane person would put it off for a moment longer than necessary.. And indeed, I'd made the decision before he'd finished asking the question.
'ASAP,' I said.
'May 30th is looking good,' said the surgeon..
Early last year, I wrote about going to a friend's funeral. What I didn't talk about was how this friend died. She had not been ill, and her death was wholly unexpected. She had gone into hospital for some routine procedure, (I have never been told what), and she developed complications and died.
Did she fear, I wonder, as she made her way up the winding mountain road to Canberra and to hospital, that she may never make the journey back home again? Did she think, as she went about making her preparations, (getting the washing done, making sure the fridge and pantry were stocked up, packing her overnight bag with her new PJ's and her books), that this might be the last time that she might do these things?
Of course, the chances of 'something going wrong' are very slight. Present though, and as the days are counted off to May 30th, they begin to seem larger than they are, and their presence begins to sharpen the edges of each day.
I busy myself with practical things. Do all the pruning, and tidying, and planting, and dahlia lifting, and weeding, that I possibly can, so that I don't stress about the garden for a few weeks. (And plant an oak tree, and plant bulbs, and picture the years to come in which they grow and flourish.) Clean the house from top to bottom, so it doesn't irritate me while I'm sitting about twiddling my thumbs. Write to friends who I haven't heard from for a while, (are they OK? When will I see them again?) And work through the final proof reading of the story collection, hours and hours of it, on the phone to publisher, Julian, who guides me through this extraordinarily painstaking process with unfailing patience and confidence. It must be done and ready for the printer by May 30th.
And of course, there are all the preparations for the rehab and recovery process. For although I will be, by all accounts, a 'new woman' after the op - will not, in fact, even 'know myself' - (scary thought, worthy of a Dr. Who script), yet there will be weeks of feeling worse. I must organise crutches, a raised toilet seat, a cushion for the car, a script for painkillers, a pathology workup, and new PJ's. I must make sure bills are paid, files organised, and reading material assembled. I must have a hair cut and get my laptop fixed.
Through all these preparations, I take many moments to pause and look about me. The golden spires of a line of poplars in the distance; mist lifting off the river in the morning and spreading across the paddocks; the totally-0n-to-it kookaburra perched on the gatepost watching for lizards; the sound of the river; a little pile of smooth, hard, grey sweet pea seeds in my hand, which hold the beginnings of scented flowers for the spring to come.
I count down the weeks, and then the days. Only seven days to go now! Gradually, I cross all the things off the list, feeling some small sense of achievement and control. It's what I do in my larger life, marking the years and the decades as they pass - the anniversaries, the Christmases, the holidays. Marking the achievements, the friendships, the struggles and dilemmas that give some meaning to it all.
Did my friend think of this too, as she made her way over the mountain? The inevitability of the end is foreshadowed many times in our lives, and each time provides an opportunity, maybe an insight or an epiphany. Maybe a reprieve.
How to live the time that's left?
In life, it is possible to get away with doing the same thing over and over again. Patterns of behaviour can become ingrained, so much a part of a person's habitual response that others may think, 'oh, that's so-and-so for you, he's always been like that, unsociable/quick to take offence/ whatever. But in a movie, or a novel, it will not do to get to the end of the story to find that the protagonist has learned nothing from his journey, and is unchanged by his experiences. In order to work, a story needs the main character/s to change. They might be tested, they might have some realisation or insight, or they must go on some journey, real or metaphorical, and arrive at a different place from where they set out. If, for example, at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy was still arrogant, and Elizabeth still judgemental, there would be no story.
Beauty and the Beast, in its original form, (written by Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756), is a story of transformation through love. Beauty is kind, sensible, and sweet tempered, as well as beautiful, but she cannot love the Beast because of his fearsome, monstrous appearance. In the original story, the Beast is consistently kind and gentle with her from the beginning. Under enchantment by a wicked fairy, (with no reason given as to why he deserved this), his task is simply to find a woman who will love him for the goodness of his heart, and nothing else.. Beauty must change for the story to work. She first learns not to fear the Beast, then to converse with him and enjoy his company, and feelings of friendship and trust grow. But still she cannot love him, (we infer a sexual love of course, but being a fairy story, this cannot be explicit). But at last, when the Beast is dying in her arms, and she sees that she might lose him forever, she realises a passionate love for him.
"I thought it was only friendship I felt for you,' cried Beauty passionately, 'but now I know it was love.'
Her words break the enchantment, transforming the Beast back into a handsome young Prince, and providing the final step in her journey from innocent girlhood to sexually awakened woman.
(In the story, when Beauty first looks up and sees the Prince, she sobs, "but where is my poor Beast? I only want him and nobody else!' It is an awkward moment, glossed over by the explanations provided by the Prince, and the moralising of the fairy-lady, who appears like a mother figure to tell Beauty that she has 'chosen well.' I have always thought it oddly contradictory that Beauty must learn to love a Beast, only for her reward to be the replacement of the Beast with a man. The Beast means everything to Beauty, and to me, the reader, who has gone on the journey with her; the handsome Prince seems a mere standard, annoying substitute.)
At any rate, this is a classic, exemplary story about the power of perceptual change, achieved through incremental steps and hard learned lessons, to transform our lives. 'I see things differently now,' Beauty might say, along with Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke, King Lear, and a host of others.
I was quite trepidatious about seeing the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Would they mangle the tale beyond recognition? Would it be a sentimental, saccharine confection? Would Beauty have any internal conflicts, or would her happy-ever-after be handed to her on a plate? My fears were unfounded. The movie delivers a hugely satisfying version of this classic, although I was marginally irritated by the whole Gaston sub plot, especially the improbability of such a foppish buffoon suddenly becoming a fearless fighter and a match for the Beast at the end. Never mind.
The most intriguing thing for me about the movie was the way it showed character development in the Beast, as well as in Beauty. In the original story, the Beast simply persists. The enchantment makes him stupid as well as bestial. All he can do is show his true, kind heart. The movie however, offers a parallel transformational arc for him, as well as for Beauty. Backstory shows him as a vain, selfish, self indulgent Prince, with a cruel and vicious temper. When he inadvertently offends the enchantress, the spell she puts on him specifically requires him to change, or face eternal damnation.. He must learn to win love, without the aid of good looks, wealth or the trappings of power, and to do this he must learn to curb his temper, think of others before himself, and open his mind to culture and learning, (a lovely touch, I think, in this movie, is Belle inspiring the Beast to re connect with his books.) By the end, he has learned to be humble, and to put another's needs ahead of his own, and he deserves his fairy tale reward.
I saw Manchester By the Sea, a Kenneth Lonergan film, on the same day as Beauty and the Beast, in a rare movie marathon with my ever- up-for-it friend S. Great fun! But hard to imagine two more different movies, and I would not attempt to compare them, except for this one thing.
Manchester by the Sea tells a story about a man, Lee Chandler, who has suffered a terrible trauma that has affected his whole life.. Lee is depressed, angry, stuck in the past, his relationships broken, and his whole life apparently on hold. Not perhaps entirely dissimilar from the position of the Prince at the beginning of Disney's tale. A twist of fate - an unexpected provision in his brother's will - suddenly gives him an opportunity for change.. He is required by the will to be guardian for his sixteen year old nephew. It's an intriguing narrative device, and I was fascinated to see how it would play out.
Lee refuses categorically to take up the responsibility he's been given. I thought that this would just be his initial reaction, that his position would slowly change. The terms of narrative development required it! It simply didn't occur to me that this would be a story about someone who stayed resolutely and massively stuck, despite all the many opportunities for redemption that the movie offers him.
His nephew is an engaging young man, who despite having just lost his father, is determined to get on with his life, no matter what. Unlike his Uncle Lee. Coming to a workable arrangement for the guardianship of this very competent, self assured, and agreeable young person would not be hard, you would think. Lee turns it into a nightmare. He is relentlessly negative and uncompromising, and manages to pick unbelievable fight after fight with his bereaved young nephew.
Other friends and relatives offer opportunities and assistance. Will Lee's ex wife, in a serendipitous meeting on the street, in which she offers a heartbroken apology for past hurts, and an affirmation of love and forgiveness, swing Lee to a different viewpoint? No. He rejects her definitively, and continues on the same morose, self defeating path that takes him right to the end of the movie.
Casey Affleck, who plays Lee, is like a black hole on the screen, sucking the energy and life out of everything that crosses his path. I felt myself losing the will to live just watching him. He needed to take some lessons from the Beast! Even the most obnoxious person, dealt the worst possible hand, can still become a better person!
The beautiful, gentle, evocative cinematography, and the nuanced relationships of other characters, gave hope that this might be a different kind of movie. One that moved, somewhere, anywhere, that took us on a journey. But by the end, Lee has done nothing, attempted nothing, taken no chances, risked not a thing.
When, at the end, Lee's nephew asks him why he can't stay with him, Lee simply replies that he 'can't beat it.' In life, this is certainly sometimes tragically true, but in a movie, makes for a frustrating, dissatisfying experience.
I have climbed right inside the long steel potato cage so that I can get the spade in more easily. I am looking for any odd ones I might have missed in a patch that's already been dug over. The air is moist and cool at last, a magpie is chortling, watching me. The soil smells good and turns easily. Several small potatoes roll out. I sink the spade down under a large weed, and suddenly, there is no resistance from the soil, the spade drops as if into a hole. I have time to think, 'that's odd!' before I feel a sharp pain in my foot. Then there is barely time to withdraw it and go 'WTF!' when a swarm of wasps flies up out of the hole into my face. Its like a scene from The Mummy.
The thing I'm thinking as I struggle to get out of the potato cage is, 'Don't fall over!' So I'm even slower than the fastest I could be, climbing blind out of a steel cage, which is pretty slow. The wasps swarm round my head, and start stinging. Then I'm out, still upright, and start stumbling towards the house, yelling for D, and waving my arms uselessly to ward off the wasps. They follow, stinging everywhere. I feel them in my hair. They sting my face, and I try to shield it and they sting all over my back. I pull my T shirt up round my head, but clothes are no protection, they are stinging right through them. It is such a long way to the house, I can't run, just keep calling for D, hoping he'll hear me, feeling very exposed, helpless, and vulnerable.
D comes running out, his face a study in consternation and alarm. He runs over to me, swats away wasps, picks them out of my hair, shakes them out of my clothes, helps me back to the house. I collapse on the bed, I'm hyperventilating. I think, I don't need to be breathing so fast now, but I can't stop. Then I cry, feeling the shock right through my body, the sobbing helps to release it.
D is hunting for something, anything, to soothe the stings. Bonjela, left behind after some grandchild's teething episode, long ago. It helps. E and S, who are staying, and mercifully were not with me when I was attacked, come and stand by the bed and watch me. A thoroughly dishevelled, weeping, somewhat distraught grandma. They are very sympathetic. After making a lot of enquiries, (did they sting your eyeball?, why did they follow you? etc) they disappear for a few minutes, then return with a picture they've done for me to cheer me up. E's picture is of a pony with a very colourful and complicated mane. The pictures do cheer me up.
I lie for a while, recovering, taking stock of the impact of this event. Has anything changed? All the places I have been stung hurt, and I know they will hurt and itch for a few days. But I am intact still, functioning, still myself. Still alive. Will it stop me from wanting to dig in the garden? No, but I might be more careful where I put the spade. The day is still bright with sunshine, and merry with birdsong and children's voices. I have been looked after, I have a place to rest.
Life can take sudden sharp turns, utterly out of the blue. You can be walking along a London street, minding your own business, enjoying your day, and then with no warning at all, you are in the middle of an explosion, and life forever changed. I am lucky, lucky, lucky.
The unfinished quilt has sat in the cupboard since before Christmas, waiting for its time again. Finishing it requires hours on end of peace, in which thinking is not interrupted, momentum builds, and the dining room table can remain covered with the complicated workings of it all.
Spreading out the almost finished top, on a day when all conditions seem to be met, I am struck again by the last problem I was grappling with - how to finish the border. And just as quickly, the fresh view of it affords me the answer that eluded me before. There will be a lot more cutting involved. Arithmetic. How many squares of the twelve different fabrics, and of what size? One hundred and twenty six, two and a half by two and a half. (Measurements in quilting are weirdly, but somehow comfortingly, in inches.) Measuring, cutting, pinning, sewing, ironing. A wave of excitement when it's done - it works! And as so often happens in quilting, the end result throws up a surprise, a revelation about the pattern that is above and beyond what I planned for. Here, the similarity in tone of the batik fabrics I've used in this quilt, produce an effect when they are placed flush together, almost of a single, new fabric.. Only the red pieces stand out, like jewels in a rich garment.
Now I lay out the three layers. (First vacuum every scrap of dog hair off the carpet.) Two backing pieces must be cut and sewn together. The whole is smoothed and centred, decisions made about edging, then all three layers are pinned together with dozens of bent-back quilting pins, starting in the middle. I crawl around the floor on my hands and knees, putting the pins in, taking them out, smoothing again, putting them back in.
I believe lots of people take their finished quilt tops to professional quilters at this stage,, but even though I am a poor amateur at machine quilting, the thought of someone else doing it is anathema. I decide on the simplest quilting pattern I can think of that does the job, and enhances the pattern of individual batik squares. It's hard physical work now, handling the whole three layers of a queen size quilt, and feeding them evenly and smoothly through the machine, without getting the dreaded bunching, puckering, creasing, and layers sliding about leaving gaps and folds that shouldn't be there, and which stick out, to my critical eye, like dog's balls. When all is finally done,, the job of unpicking all the mistakes I can't live with begins. Hard to find the black threads to unpick on the black backing fabric. I feel as if I am going cross eyed. I put some opera on - the drama seems to fit the moment.
Then it is all spread out again, and the edge turned and pinned. I decide to slip stitch the edge in place rather than machine it, It takes six times longer, but looks much better. Mitre the corners. Find and snip off all remaining cotton ends. Check for tiny places where the stitching has not caught. Press, carefully, with the iron. Rush finished quilt into bedroom and spread it out on the bed. It is beautiful. It is everything I wanted it to be. Rush up and down house calling to D to come and look. He has seen it a million times in the making, has taken his last few meals at the kitchen bench without complaint, as the dining room table has been out of action. But he hasn't seen it FINISHED. He is suitably impressed and admiring.
It's the only quilt that I have considered giving a name, something like Bali Memories, or Bali Dreaming, It captures the two weeks we spent with C and M and the children in Bali two years ago, the exotic, rich, exuberant feel of that time and place. I was so struck by the beautiful batik fabrics that you can buy so cheaply in the markets there, and I was so excited by the diversity of them. It became a challenge to find different ones in different markets. When I got back to our hotel room, I'd spread them out on the bed, and marvel at their rich beauty, the warmth of the colours, and the intricacies of the traditional designs. I was already thinking of the quilt I was going to make, and it would of course be for C and M.
On this day that I finished the quilt, they called in to see us on their way home.
'Wait here,' I said, 'I've got something for you.'
I had folded the quilt up, with the top facing inside. I'd considered wrapping it, or putting a bow around it, but these things seemed to put it on a level with any other present, which it wasn't.. So it was unadorned, and without ceremony, as I handed it over. Books get launched, gardens and houses are opened, yachts have champagne broken on their bows, artworks are unveiled. I know of no ceremony or tradition for the handing over and unfolding of a new quilt, but the thudding of my heart as C and M spread it on the bed and saw it for the first time, told me that there should be one.
C and M's pleasure and delight in it was my reward. And - days later, seeing it on their bed, its dark colours gleaming among the other bedclothes, a jewel from my life, that I have hope will outlast me many many years.
We are making the change to solar power at last. It feels momentous, and a bit frightening, but a great relief, nevertheless. At last I feel I'm doing something reasonably significant to reduce my own personal carbon emissions, although it's hardly a radical decision to make anymore. Many of our neighbours have had solar power for a long while, and for all sorts of reasons besides concerns about climate change. So many people, in fact, are now going solar, that the government is starting to phase out the subsidies on solar panels, and the electricity companies are phasing out the feed in tariff. Of course.
Switching to solar power seems a bold and quite dramatic change to make to our lifestyle, although apart from the financial outlay and -hopefully not too many - teething problems, it's not going to hurt us. We are not sacrificing anything. We're not going to be giving up any comfortable habits or indulgencies. Our lives will not be poorer, or made more difficult, by this change. If anything, they'll be enhanced, because the electricity bills will go down.
Making the lasting changes to the habits and practices of my daily life which would reduce my own carbon footprint, is challenging, confronting, and hard. Here are just a few of these dilemmas:
1 I have to have a car, living in a remote location, in order to go to town to do my shopping, have medical appointments, see family, and so on. I have made a decision to limit these trips to one a week, in order to limit my fuel consumption, but this decision is frequently challenged. For example, one of the kids might call and ask for some babysitting help, in a week when I have already had my one trip to town. The idea that I'd refuse to do something for one of the family because it would exceed the fuel use I've allowed myself seems remote and ridiculous.
2. I want to go back to the U.K. for a trip. (It's nearly 10 years since the last one.) The temptations are many - to visit childhood places with my sister again; to do a tour of some of the great gardens that I've never seen; to simply soak up the atmosphere again, the moist air, the green-ness of everything, the deciduous trees, the old buildings, the stone walls. My heart aches for it all. Home! But taking an international flight, and being a tourist, has come to exemplify for me the excessive and unsustainable use of resources that is ruining our planet. I am making a slow and painful decision not to go again.
3. Using our farm to keep cattle for beef production has many positive benefits - it gives us extra income, provides us with employment in retirement, helps to feed the population, and contributes to keeping the open pasture in the Brindabella Valley that is part of its characteristic beauty. But those cows are continuously farting methane into the atmosphere. And we should be eating less beef. The whole world should be eating less beef, not more, because cattle need a lot more land to produce a lot less food. Making a decision to sell the cattle and plant some kind of crop instead sounds fine on paper. But energy, capital, and knowledge about crops are all in short supply.
Other, smaller, decisions seem like they should be easier to make. Consume less - easy, until the electric jug breaks down, and I need to buy another one. ( We used to use a saucepan to boil water, why not now?) Or,I go on a rare shopping trip with my sister, and buy two brand new tops to keep her company and because it's fun. (I probably have enough clothes, or the fabric to make them, to last the rest of my life, but I might start to look strange and embarrass the children.) Or, I buy books online from the Book Depository, because they're so cheap, and because I can almost always get the titles I want, and the postage is FREE! (but those books travel all the way from the U.K., and I could buy more second hand books, or go back to the library like I used to do quite happily decades ago.)
When there is absolutely no incentive to making a behaviour change, other than the satisfaction of knowing that you are upholding a principle, it is especially hard to bother with it consistently. Oh shit, I've left my shopping bags in the car! I say often, approaching the checkout - too late to go and get them, and what difference is it going to make?
This is the most difficult hurdle of all to overcome, that helpless, hopeless giving up, that so demoralising and convincing argument that nothing I do will make the slightest difference to the outcome for the planet anyway. My actions and decisions, or lack of them, are of less than negligible significance.
But I flog myself awake. There is strength in numbers; the more people who behave a certain way, the more likely it becomes that those people will bring about a change. As increasing numbers of people have chosen to get solar power, or to source their power from renewable energy, the industry has become stronger, the products have become cheaper, the idea has become mainstream. Momentum builds.
I've waited through several decades now for successive Australian governments to show some leadership on making the difficult and confronting decisions that have to be made in order to reduce our carbon emissions. Like responsible parents, they could have made us do the right things, even if we didn't like it. We were stopped from chucking litter out of our car windows by hefty fines. We had our profligate usage of plastic bags severely curtailed by making supermarkets start to charge for them.
But I've given up waiting. I've got to make the changes I think are right, and that I think other people ought to make, myself. I'm not going to save the planet, but my conscience might be a little easier at least.